Wife-selling as a last resort economic asset in Qing dynasty China

Wife-selling as a last resort economic asset in Qing dynasty China

Every day I read new and interesting things about Chinese culture, things that I want to share with the readers of this web, but that mostly I didn’t because my attention flies to another question. Here there are some remarks of Matthew Sommer[1] about wife selling in the Qing dynasty.

 By ―wife-selling, I refer to the direct sale of a wife by her husband to another man to become the latter‘s wife or concubine. During the Qing, the sale of wives was a widespread survival strategy among the poor; if other resources were exhausted, a husband could sell his wife as a last resort.

Wife-selling represents just one dimension of a pervasive traffic in women and children that affected almost every aspect of Qing society and economy. This traffic was closely linked with the imbalance in the ratio between the sexes that prevailed in China at that time: a shortage of women and a surplus of single men that most severely affected poor rural villages (which might have a 15% or greater surplus of single adult males).

One cause of this imbalance was the crisis strategy of infanticide. Some scholars (for example James Lee 李中清 and Kenneth Pomeranz) argue that perhaps 25% of female infants were killed in eighteenth-century China, although this estimate is controversial and may be too high. Whatever the actual rate of infanticide, there is strong consensus that overall childhood mortality was far higher for females than for males, because of the strong cultural preference for sons. But the traffic in women exacerbated the raw imbalance in poor communities by transferring countless girls and young women out to more prosperous households, where they became servants and concubines. At the same time, other practices within the traffic in women responded to the shortage of wives in poor communities by making a relatively small number of women available to a much larger number of men. Polyandry (known colloquially as ―招夫養夫) and prostitution are examples of the latter phenomenon; wife sales and widow remarriage served a similar function, by recycling women through more than one marriage.

We have surprisingly little scholarship on any aspect of the traffic in women in China; most of what we have focuses on domestic servants and concubines who were purchased by elite households from their parents (usually through brokers). Most elite men had concubines (妾), in addition to a main wife (妻); and all elite households had many female servants. It is important to note that the elite had a vital stake in the traffic in women – something that everyone knew, but that was seldom explicitly acknowledged in normative discourse. Elites aside, it is clear that the routine form of marriage practiced by most peasants was simply to sell a daughter to the groom‘s family – even if, for reasons of face, the transaction was not explicitly labeled a ―sale. In other words, the bride price paid by the groom‘s family far exceeded any dowry, which was usually trivial in material value. (The reason dowry served as an important status symbol for wealthy people is that most people simply could not afford it; a lavish dowry, publicly displayed, was one means by which the elite converted material capital into symbolic capital, to show that they were rich enough and moral enough not to sell their daughters – unlike the poor majority.)

Furthermore, most widow remarriage constituted a simple sale of the woman to her new husband. The proceeds might well be used to pay off the first husband‘s debts, or even to buy his coffin. Widow remarriage, although stigmatized by neo-Confucian morality, was nearly universal among the peasantry.

Matthew H. Sommer has several interesting books about the life in the China of the last dynasty, among them, some of the most popular are:

Sommer, Matthew H -Sex, Law, and Society in Late Imperial China. Stanford University Press. 2000

Sommer, Matthew H. Polyandry and Wife-Selling in Qing Dynasty China. University of California Press. 2015.

[1] Sommer, Matthew. The Adjudication of Wife-selling in Qing County Courts. 220 Cases from Ba, Nanbu, and Baodi Counties. 中央研究院歷史語言研究所主辦,西元 2005


Even within Qing laws there were clear regulations against buying and selling wives. In reality, however, not only did China have a long history of such activities as purchasing and renting a wife , other places including India, Thailand, Africa, the Americas, Britain, France, Germany and other European countries have also had such. Wives would be auctioned and sold much like other commodities and possessions. As early as in the first Babylonian Empire (1700 BC) there were regulations in the Code of Hammurabi on selling a wife to pay off a husband’s debt, which in some cases were accumulated because of drought.

Chen Zhiwu et al., Women as Insurance Assets in Traditional Societies: A study of brideprices during 18th-19th century China* Yale University. 2014

jinuo book

Last posts

Two Creation Myths of the Kucong Minority

Two Creation Myths of the Kucong Minority

Two Creation Myths of the Kucong Minority[1] The Creation of Heaven and Earth[2] In the era of chaos, there was neither heaven nor earth, and no people existed. There were no rivers or mountains, trees or plants, beasts or birds. The world was a dark void. A group of...

Polo in Ancient China: A Sport of Emperors

Polo in Ancient China: A Sport of Emperors

Polo in Ancient China: A Sport of Emperors Polo: A Sport of Emperors Anyone who has delved into Chinese art, especially that of the Tang Dynasty, would be surprised by the multitude of images depicting polo players. Noble women (and some men), elegantly dressed, are...

Pin It on Pinterest